Killer Driver Education Films

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If you took a driver’s education class in high school in the 1960s or 1970s, you undoubtedly saw one of bloody films produced to scare teens into driving safely.

Typically, these films told the story of teens who stopped thinking when they started driving and ended up in a horrible accident. The message was clear: Slow down and be safe.

These films were an extension of industrial safety films produced by the insurance industry in the 1930’s. Like the driver education films that came later, these industrial safety films focused on the behavior of people, not the unsafe conditions that existed in work environments of the time. Likewise, many auto accidents were caused by poorly engineered cars and roads, but it would be many years before that was recognized as an important factor in driving safety.

One of the first driver education films was 1935’s “We Drivers.” It featured two characters, “Reckless Rudolph” and “Sensible Sam,” and their driving behavior was contrasted.

The most shocking driver education shock films entered classrooms after World War II. Training films had proven effective during the war, teaching troops everything from how to clean their rifles to how to avoid venereal disease. The VD films were said to be particularly effective. Once soldiers saw graphic images of what VD could do to their private parts, they thought twice about dipping their wicks. The use of scare tactics like this became the basis of later driver education films.

Some of the most well-known driver education films were released by the Highway Safety Foundation, under the leadership of Richard Wayland, starting in the 1950’s. He produced films like “Wheels of Tragedy,” “Mechanized Death” and “Signal 30,” which was police code for a traffic fatality.

These films were filled with blood and gore, and it was said that girls fainted when they saw the carnage. Back then, police and driver education authorities tried to scare teens into safe driving behavior; today they use a more cognitive approach, putting reason over emotion.

Did these films help reduce traffic fatalities? Their effectiveness is being questioned today. When I took Driver’s Ed back in the day, I remember them having a sobering effect on the class. Our Driver Ed teacher posted a picture on the bulletin board that got a lot of attention. It showed a ball of metal, which used to be a car, hanging from a wrecker. The caption said the car had nine teens it in when it hit a pole. We all stood around, examining the picture, trying to identify various body parts that protruded from the remains of the car. Scare tactics worked.